Mohammad Akram maintains a punishing schedule. From 4 am to 6 am, he works at a rug-manufacturing unit close to his home in Laharpur in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitarpur district. He then cycles 20 km to a madrasa in Biswan and teaches from 9 am to 2.30 pm. At 6 pm, he returns to work at the loom for another two hours.

Akram, who holds a master’s degree in political science from Kanpur University, was appointed to teach maths and English at the madrasa in 2009. He stopped receiving his salary in 2016, and with no safety net to fall back on, he has learnt how to weave durries. “I earn Rs 150 per day from it,” he said. “I had to learn, I have two small children.”

Akram is one of over 20,000 teachers appointed to impart modern education in Uttar Pradesh’s madrasas, or Islamic seminaries, who have gone without pay for three years. They say that their salary disbursal had always been irregular but stopped altogether from March 2016.

Over the months, teachers like him have taken increasingly desperate steps to make ends meet. Some tutor children privately, others drive electric rickshaws after school, and at least one delivers goods for a store. On January 30 and January 31, over 100 of them from across Uttar Pradesh protested at Jantar Mantar in Delhi.

Recruited to teach mathematics, sciences, social science and English in the madrasas, Akram and his colleagues were covered by the Scheme for Providing Education to Madrasas and Minorities, which is funded by the Union government. The programme was designed to introduce mainstream learning in madrasas that opt for it. Apart from funding training, libraries and infrastructure development, it provides honoraria for up to three teachers per madrasa.

The amounts disbursed under this scheme are nominal – Rs 6,000 per month for graduate teachers and Rs 12,000 per month for postgraduate ones, including those who have teaching qualifications. To this, Uttar Pradesh adds another Rs 2,000 for graduate teachers and Rs 3,000 for postgraduate teachers.

But with funding from the government not coming in for a few years, the arrears run into crores. According to government documents, by September, the Centre owed Uttar Pradesh Rs 284.87 crore in unreleased but approved grants. There are arrears in payments to other states as well but nothing of this size.

This large sum is possibly because of the 18 states the scheme has been implemented in, Uttar Pradesh has the highest coverage with 8,584 madrasas teaching 18,27,566 children. Some, including Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, have over 1,000 madrasas each, but the numbers in other states are smaller.

The madrasas do teach some Hindu children, with the Islamic Madrasa Adhunikaran Shikshak Sangh of India, a teachers’ association that organised the Jantar Mantar protest, claiming about 30% of its membership is Hindu. The scheme, however, overwhelmingly affects Muslims. This is why the teachers are convinced the delays and underfunding are deliberate. “When the aim of the scheme is being met, how do we see this [situation] except as a way to stop poor Muslims from progressing?” asked Ansar Ahmad, a teacher at a state government-supported madrasa in Lakhimpur Kheri.

More clarity on the situation and the scheme’s implementation was sought from the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development but the detailed questions sent via email went unanswered.

Mohammad Akram, Nabi Rasool, Mohammad Zubair Khan and Ajmal Khan at the protest at Jantar Mantar. (Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury).

Modernising madrasas

A madrasa’s main offering is Islamic education, or din-i-taleem – a mix of spiritual instruction and languages such as Arabic, Urdu and Persian. It is an educational track that can either produce priests or language experts. Opportunities in higher education and employment are limited.

While some madrasas shun secular education altogether, others do not have a choice but to focus only on Islamic education. Private madrasas are usually established by Muslim communities and funded with donations. Many do not charge fees and cater to some of the poorest, most marginalised children in their neighbourhoods. “The donors and management members are themselves poor, agricultural labourers or other types of workers, who cannot give more than Rs 10, Rs 20 or Rs 50,” said Mohammad Zubair Khan, a teacher from Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh’s largest district. This just about covers the salaries of the language teachers and imams who earn about Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 per month, but could never be stretched to cover mainstream education. For them, the government scheme made all the difference.

The government’s effort to modernise madrasas began in 1993 with two centrally-sponsored schemes – the Area Intensive Programme for Educationally Backward Minorities and Financial Assistance for Modernisation of Madrasa Education.

Revised several times, their latest iteration, the combined Scheme for Providing Education to Madrasas and Minorities, was launched in 2009. Supported by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, it has two parts. One provides funds for infrastructure development and the second, the Scheme for Providing Quality Education in Madrasas, covers salaries and training for teachers. “It is the only scheme for minorities that was actually working on the ground,” said the association’s president, Ajaz Ahmad.

Ansar Ahmad explained: “Earlier, Muslim boys were nowhere in the inter-colleges [Uttar Pradesh’s schools from Class 9 to Class 12] but now at least 25% students are from our community.” Enrolment of girls has increased dramatically. His madrasa, a government-aided institution founded before Independence, has a total enrolment of 700, and 70% are girls.

Several teachers reported a roll strength of over 100 in their schools. The Bareilly madrasa, where Mohammad Shakeel works, has several Hindu children from the Maurya and Thakur communities. They are excused from din-i-taleem and taught Sanskrit instead.

Ajaz Ahmad, the teachers' association's president, addresses teachers at the protest in Delhi on Wednesday. (Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury).

Shrinking funds

A government review of the scheme says that over 21,000 madrasas across states had received Rs 1,138 crore from 2009 till January 2018, but funds have always fallen short of what was required. Budget documents show that over 2015-’16 – the last year in which teachers were paid – the Union government made actual expenditure of Rs 295.83 crore on the scheme. But for 2016-’17, it budgeted just Rs 120 crore and spent Rs 109.21 crore. The outlay for the next year is Rs 120 crore as well.

A Parliamentary Standing Committee report tabled in both Houses on March 9 has shown a decrease in the number of teachers paid through the scheme, from 50,957 in 2015-’16 to just 12,518 in 2017-’18 (till February 9, 2018). In Uttar Pradesh, the number dropped from 37,824 to 10,724.

Besides the squeeze in funding, the Centre has also changed the rules since 2016, making it harder for madrasas to qualify to access public funds for mainstream education. For instance, the Central Grant-In-Aid Committee restricted the scheme in 2016 to only madrasas that have submitted details on students, teachers and infrastructure to the Central database – the District Information System for Education. As a part of this exercise, management committees had to also locate their madrasas on a Geographical Information System.

In government records, the shrinking coverage and payment delays are attributed to the failure of madrasas to either submit utilisation certificates or meet one or more of the new requirements.

Ajaz Ahmad, however, insisted that the madrasas and teachers he represents had fulfilled all requirements – they are recognised and have submitted all the data and documents to the government – a year ago. The ministry’s website does not furnish records of any meeting of the Central Grant-in-Aid Committee after July 2016.

In 2018, after the scheme’s review report, the ministry extended it till 2020 but also revised the guidelines again – it now requires madrasas to be recognised by a school education board as well.

Mohammad Zubair Khan and Mohammad Raees Khan. (Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury).

Managing without pay

Over the last three years, as they took up more jobs and sank into debt, teachers continued to go to class. Ram Naresh Gupta, a science teacher at a madrasa in Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh, earned a BEd degree but borrowed the entire course fee – Rs 50,000 – from a relative. “I kept going [to school] because we cannot abandon our dreams so quickly,” he said. “I had hoped to build a career in teaching.”

Similarly, Mohammad Kaleem, who holds an MA in Hindi and also teaches in Bahraich, is Rs 3 lakh in debt with no way of settling it.

A large number of teachers, including Khan, the Lakhimpur Kheri teacher, now rely on private tuitions. But in rural Uttar Pradesh, rates are low – Rs 50 to Rs 100 per month, a little more if you teach English. Nabi Rasool, who holds a MSc in Chemistry from Rohilkhand University, Bareilly, tutors close to 50 children. His friend and colleague, Raees Ahmad, drives an electric rickshaw in the evenings. “His children were attending an English-medium school but he has put them in Hindi-medium now,” said Rasool.

Another madrasa teacher, Mohammad Raees from Lakhimpur Kheri, has tied up with a grocery store in his village and delivers goods for it every day after school. “I have been doing this for three years and on some days, I make Rs 200,” he said. He has four children and owes Rs 37,000 across nearly 10 shops. “You cannot keep borrowing from one – after a point the owner stops letting you take things without paying upfront.”

Even when they were being paid, these teachers received their salaries as lump-sums a few times a year. Ansar Ahmad invested his last pay in an “online centre” – a small internet café where villagers fill online forms. This allows him to meet his daily financial needs. But when his sister needed a heart valve transplant in November 2018, he could not find the Rs 3.5 lakh it would cost.

At the Jantar Mantar protest on January 30, an activist announced that government officials had “assured action”.

But the teachers gathered there remained sceptical. Khan and his colleagues have protested in Delhi several times, the last time on December 18. “We have heard this before, it does not mean anything,” said Khan.